Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination textually embodies a space where readers can engage relationships that “reflect the human capacity to participate in divine creativity” (186). Thelathia Nikki Young invites us into this location using an ethnographic method that is simultaneously research process and ethical commitment. Thus, the narrative becomes a tool for moral reflection and for agency—the author’s, her co-participants’, and then the reader’s.
Young begins her project on family by debunking the historical myth of an American family (white, hetero, two kids, a dog). She argues from the first pages of the book that, “The American family is a queer family” (5). The human relationships centered in the text are those of black queer family. Young highlights three core claims that arise in the midst of this ethical locatedness. First, family is both a microcosm of larger social, political, economic, and religious patterns and the pedagogical foundation for them. Normalizing and disciplining forms of family need to be disrupted if justice-love is to be possible. Second, black queer people are moral subjects regardless of the religio-political whitecisheteropatriarchal norm that governs U.S. life. Third, critically engaging marginalized subjectivities is not a particularist or isolationist approach. Rather, these subjectivities bear witness to moral potential in all of us (185).
As Young accompanies her co-participants and the reader through her text, what black queer family is and can be unfolds. Young’s ethical claims—about family and black queer family specifically—do not reinscribe tidy, fixed categories of how to “do and be family” for once and for all. She avoids setting formulae for given versus chosen family. Alongside Young’s method, the relational and contextual experiences shared by interviewees subvert the dominant form of family ethics by destabilizing its “normalizing” function—that is, its tendency to classify and evaluate moral capacities as either “in” or “out.” Instead, family as creative (moral) act includes continuities and discontinuities that Young describes as disruption-irruption, creative resistance, and subversive-generative imagination.
What can we make of this as a work of Christian ethics? For some of Young’s co-participants, Christianity is not a salient meaning-maker in their lives, and it has often been harmful. Young does not turn to a saccharine substitute of Christian kinship or abstract neighbor love to package a palatable black queer family ethic. She calls the reader first to remember a particular Christian moral imperative that is, for her, Christologically focused. She writes, “In my interpretation of Christianity’s sacred text, Jesus was a radical and revolutionary dismantler of oppressive forces who used various means of reorientation, disambiguation, and institutional subversion to reimagine a ‘family’ through iteration and action” (9). Young’s distinctly social ethics approach is located not in a theological novelty, but in a lived historical concreteness of which Christians are called to be a part.
Today, as in centuries past, social locatedness matters even (or perhaps more so) when it is constructed by empire and religion, gendered and racialized, confined by a productive and reproductive telos (13). I live in the debunked American family—white, Christian, cisheterosexual, two kids (a girl and a boy), dogs (we have two, so that disrupts things a bit). Many white, Christian, heterosexual theologians and ethicists may not read Young’s text, reasoning that, as “we” are not present in it, it is not about us. What does a black queer family ethics and philosophical imagination have to say in response? First, as I have already noted, the purpose of the text is not to answer a question (much less one that centers whiteness or cisheterosexuality), but to invite readers into a space of moral reflection and imagination. Second, the text is in fact all about the moral failings and possibilities of family as creative act, which can only be morally prosperous if it aims at anti-racism, gender and sexual inclusion, and economic thriving. How else would we all be able to be fully free selves “able to love and love justly” (181)? In the everydayness of being family, it is easy to lose sight of its moral import. We would all do well to begin and end each day asking together if we did the work of liberation—imagining that the current circumstances that define our lives need not be. As Young writes, justice-love “means that our liberty necessitates our accountability and becoming free together means being family” (181). In the space created by this black queer family ethics, I can morally reflect on how freedom is differently, yet distinctly, deformed for white, heterosexual, Christians like myself. I can also imagine how (and act so) it need not be.
By this same invitation, our contributors have also been compelled by Young, her text, and her co-participants to question the definition of family, consider other social, political, and cultural forces similar to family, and highlight the methodological import of Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination.
In her essay, Monique Moultrie begins with creativity generated by song. She calls forth the continuities of Young’s text with Sister Sledge’s song “We are Family” in which family values, virtues, and norms are troubled. Moultrie highlights the ways Young’s text resists “normalizing or essentializing” black queer experiences of family. Moultrie also names the desire for a reconstructed ethic of family relationship, though one that in “pursuing and creating the good life” is about the processes of “accountability and responsibility” not preconceived pathways.
Rebecca Alpert also finds generativity in Young’s redefinition of family through queer kinship, not biology or economics. In this way, both the co-participants and Young trouble reproduction and production as ties that bind, or should bind, family. In pushing the binary of bio-legal versus chosen family, Alpert asks, “What of friendship?” Engaging the reflections of one co-participant, Sage, Alpert wonders if using terms like circles of intimacy or families or stay downers is preferable to co-opting and redefining the term family itself.
In her response, Marcia Riggs acknowledges the family as a social, political and cultural force. She applauds Young’s process of examination that begins not with public policy debates where others have set the terms, but at “the site of oppression and source of creative resistance.” Riggs asks Young and our readers to expand the social institutions that require black queer ethical examination. Riggs names two other social institutions: education and religion/church. Within her response, she raises for consideration protest as form of disruption and the need to resist the disciplining effects of the binaries of orthodoxy.
Resonating with the methodological import of Young’s work, Josef Sorett notes that Young not only makes claims about moral subjectivity, but enacts a new method that embodies the same subjectivity. His essay details how Young’s methodology of praxis is transgressive against the very disciplines it brings together. With regard to Christian ethics, Young’s work is “Not an act of apologetics.” It is a re-centering and “holding the discipline accountable” to doing what its name describes—Christian ethics. Sorett also suggests, Young pushes on the disciplinary boundaries of Black queer studies with attention to Christianity. In rounding out his analysis of her praxis mode, he connects Young’s ethnographic engagement with the #BlackLivesMatter movement’s locatedness of “Black Villages.”
Benae Baemon further identifies the space and locatedness that Young creates with her co-participants and with her readers. Beamon describes the creation of this space as a jazz mode of creativity that does not predetermine or over determine. Engaging the concept of liminality, as articulated by Victor Turner, she details the ways in which liminality is present for her and for the co-participants in Young’s text, creating an is and not-yet. Where white, western academic ethics often disciplines its writers to seek normativity, Beamon notes in her own ethical practice, Young offers the reader a “beautiful and complex mess that is a non-normative life lived in resistance: the anti-structure.” Baemon calls this a distinctly black queer Afrofuturity.
Black Queer Ethics, Family, and Philosophical Imagination is a text that liberates the contours of disciplinary fields, methodological approaches, and as Young herself hopes, all, but especially black queer, families and relationships.